• Bob Flotkoetter

Nissan’s ‘Working Remotely’ Could Serve as a Template for the Future

By continuing product development during the pandemic

Norris McDonald By: Norris McDonald April 29, 2020

So, the other day, I’m talking to a guy named Bob Flotkoetter, who’s director of technology planning and research at Nissan North America’s Technical Centre in Farmington Hills, Mich. Like many people these days, predominantly white-collar people, he’s working at home.

And he’s not alone. That research and development tech centre employs roughly 1,200 people supporting the design and evolution of all Nissan and Infiniti vehicles produced in North America. To continue product development during this pandemic, 80 per cent of them are working, as they say, remotely.

Which is a subject near and dear to my heart and led to me asking questions.

I don’t know why, for instance, it took a pandemic to kick-start the movement to work from home. Yes, there are some people who will always have to go to “the office,” but many others can do what they do in a home office or in their dining room.

It can save them money on clothing, dry-cleaning (they can work in their jeans instead of a suit or dress), parking/transit expenses and lunch, and it would be great for the environment because less greenhouse gases would be produced by fewer cars on the roads.

If a company has to rent space, it could save money by cutting down on the amount needed. And rents could come down because landlords would want to fill that space.

I became aware of the potential back in 1994 when I was chair of the United Way campaign in Kingston and the Islands. We had a great year, a lot of fun, and we raised a lot of money. I’d go to, say, Novelis, or DuPont, or Goodyear over in Napanee, which were manufacturing facilities, and there’d be a good turnout and I’d do my shtick and the pledges would roll in.

But when I went to the OHIP building (the Ontario government of the day was big on decentralization), I received a shock. Not that many people had turned out for the kickoff breakfast.

“What’s going on?” I said to the person who was chair of the OHIP campaign. “Don’t worry,” she said. “We’ll reach our goal.” But I wanted to know more. “Where is everybody?” I asked. And this is what she said.

“Except for management, most of the employees are doing clerical work, processing claims. They can come to work here in the office, or they can work at home. About half like the discipline of the office, so they come here to work 8:30 till 4:30 and they are with us today.

“The other half are at home. As long as they maintain the average (of claims processed per hour), they can continue doing that. We work a 35-hour week. We have one woman who starts at midnight Sunday and she works straight through. Her ‘week’ is done at 11 o’clock Tuesday morning. I couldn’t do it, but it works for her.”

Remember, that was 1994. Things might have changed. But I thought that was terrific. It could work in any office setting, I thought. So I was delighted to hear Flotkoetter say that it’s working for the Nissan tech centre — he gave examples, which I’ll get to in a second — and might lead to a sea change as far as how workplaces in general are defined going forward.

Meantime, Nissan — like other automakers — is in business to build and sell cars and trucks and is not sitting idle.

“It’s the same mission for Nissan,” Flotkoetter said. “It’s just a different approach. We’re trying to push forward with product development and we’re trying to focus on the new models we’ll have coming out in the future. In order to do that, we all can’t just stop because we’re unable to be in the same place.”

Because of the COVID-19 crisis, Flotkoetter said, the company decided to shut down its operations and start to work remotely on March 13, beating the governor of Michigan to the punch by two days.

“For many engineers, that just meant bringing home their laptops. But for many on our team, the technicians working on the vehicles, working on wire harnesses, that sort of thing, they had to think about things from a different standpoint.”

He said there was one technician who was working on a wire-harness build. (A wire harness, or wiring harness, is made up of wire, terminals and connectors that relay electric power and other information from one end of the vehicle to the other.) “We needed to get these wire harnesses built so we could continue with our testing, so he pulled together the connectors, the pins, the crimping tools and all the documentation. He took it all with him on that Friday.

“The following Monday, when the ordinance from the state came to stay home, that technician was already prepared to do work. He went down into his basement, got an old dining room table that had wheels on it so he could move it around, and created his own workspace down there. He would check in with the engineers to make sure everything was on track, they would have periodic discussions and he could share videos of what he was working on.

“Those are things that are happening all over the organization; we’re just finding new ways to achieve the same mission.”

Another example: “You may have an engineer who took a test car home with him and he’s running into a problem. Now he can have a live Zoom meeting with another engineer who could be on the other side of the country. In real time, they are diagnosing and debugging together. This all came about because of this social distancing thing, but now it’s becoming more mainstream.

“This could be the wave of the future. I won’t always have to go down to the garage (in the Farmington Hills facility) or out to our facility in Arizona to investigate an issue and debug it. We can do it in real time using the technology that we have at our fingertips.”

Flotkoetter talked passionately about creativity, and how this pandemic might result in some innovative new products. For instance, he said Nissan’s rear-door alert came about after one of the engineers left a lasagna in the back seat. And “because of a plague, Sir Isaac Newton had to go back to his family’s farm. It was there that he developed his theories of gravity and motion.”

“When you have the opportunity to go outside your normal environment, you think of things differently. I think interesting innovations will come out of this.”

But the conversation kept returning to the challenges that working from home might bring.

“We’ve found that there’s a blurred line between home life and work life,” he said. “I’ve heard, ‘Dad, you’re working more hours,’ and I have been working more hours because there’s no shutting down, per se. When I’m at the office and my day ends, I can shut off my computer and go out to my car and drive home. Now, my work is here at home with me, so if there’s work to be done, I do it. I’ve heard that many of the engineers are working more hours as a result of that.”

Hmmm. Maybe. Perhaps they’re on the job, but I’m not sure they’d always be working.

Years ago, when I was writing a column, I decided I could write it from home; there was no reason to go into the office, except maybe to pick up my mail. If I applied discipline, I could be at my computer by 9, rattle off a masterpiece by noon and have the rest of the day to myself. Or so I thought.

So I would get up in the morning and get dressed. So far so good. Because I didn’t have to be anywhere, I would then have breakfast and read the morning paper. Sometimes I would dawdle. I would then sit down at the computer at 10, ready to go. But then — this being summer and the doors would be open with just the screen doors keeping out the bugs — I would hear the letter carrier come.

Naturally, I had to check the mail. And, also naturally, that would be the day Maclean’s magazine would arrive. So I would make a coffee and read Maclean’s. Then it would be noon and time for lunch and reruns of “I Love Lucy” and “Leave It To Beaver.” At 1 p.m., I would sit down at my computer and think that I would have an award winner done by 4.

Then I would hear a big truck squeak to a stop in front of my house. Two minutes later, there would be a knock at the door and my friend Fred, who worked for the city, would invite himself in for tea. At 3, after I got rid of him, I would sit down and start typing and then my pet cat Nigel, who I hadn’t seen all day, would be scratching at the door to be let in and naturally we’d have to have a reunion (he was the king of the forest, by the way, and frequently needed patching up) and by that time it would be 4 and people would start arriving home after working all day at their offices and getting lots done.

My deadline was 11 p.m. I would sit down at my computer at 9 and rattle off something run-of-the-mill and then swear to exert some self-discipline the next day when I would have to write another column, but I rarely did. My point is that my days started fairly early in the morning, but I often didn’t send in my column till late at night. And that is the danger, for some people, of working at home.

To get around that, Flotkoetter said, Nissan North America already has a virtual office policy in place and he thinks this shutdown might lead to some enhancements. “It’s a good opportunity for us to step back and reflect on how we’re doing our jobs, which could lead to some changes to that policy. I think we’re learning now what works, what are the major challenges, how we can improve the home office environment (he said Zoom has turned out to be a godsend to hold staff meetings) and I think we’ll take a hard look at that once we all get back together.”

Meantime, as he had throughout our conversation, Flotkoetter kept returning to the challenges presented by working remotely. “For instance, I don’t think that anybody would ever wish that we had more traffic in the Detroit area — which is plenty — but a lot of the testing we do depends on normal traffic flows. Right now, the roads are fairly empty, as you would expect, and this actually impacts our testing. Some of our features depend on traffic for us to evaluate how the features are performing.”

Flotkoetter said some of the engineers who work on radio and audio systems haven’t had any trouble taking their work home with them. “Usually, we do that in a lab environment, but now we have them doing it in their driveways,” he said.

“So, if you come across somebody sitting in their driveway with the sound turned up, it might not be that they’re listening to a last, favourite song before calling it a day. They are likely evaluating the audio system on that vehicle.”

He said this experience is going to be a good learning opportunity for all industries across the board.

“When you think how we’re using remote offices and virtual situations, I think this will provide us with a lot of learning that will help guide us in the future. This might ultimately change the way in which we do our business, going forward.”

Norris McDonald is a former Star editor who is a current freelance columnist. Follow him on Twitter: @NorrisMcDonald2